10,000 Not Out: The History of The Spectator 1828-2020  by David Butterfield

Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister to have edited The Spectator, but not the first to have worked for it. That distinction belongs to a Liberal, Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister 1908-16, who in the eight years from 1876, as a not yet successful barrister, contributed a total of 60 articles.

Earlier still, William Gladstone, in the fourth year of his first premiership, wrote a wonderful letter to The Spectator, seeking to correct its report that he had said “every day must begin for me with my old friend Homer”, a remark widely taken to mean he was neglecting his official duties:

“I wish to say that the reporter has been led, probably by some careless or indistinct expression of mine, into an error. What I said was that every effort to examine the question raised on that day must begin for me with Homer … as to my beginning every day with Homer, as such a phrase conveys to the world a very untrue impression of the demands of my present office, I think it right to mention that, so far as my memory serves me, I have not read Homer for fifty lines or for a quarter of an hour consecutively during the last four years, and any dealings of mine with Homeric subjects have been confined to a number of days which could readily be counted on the fingers.”

One is reminded that many people, among them Max Beerbohm, found Gladstone’s rhetoric irresistibly funny.

This book contains something funny or striking on every page. I was ready to be disappointed, for the history of a magazine which has appeared since 1828 could easily become an arid digest of the huge volume of material contained within the 10,000 issues referred to in the title.

David Butterfield has instead produced a book which reads like the magazine itself, and is printed at the same size, the text in three columns (two for the earlier period), copiously illustrated with covers and with photographs of various editors looking shockingly young – across the top of page 148 we get Alexander Chancellor, Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson.

When Johnson became editor in 1999, a reporter on The Daily Telegraph rang me in Berlin, where I was working as that paper’s correspondent, and asked me what I thought of the appointment, for I had been deputy editor of The Spectator from 1984-87, the first three years of Moore’s editorship, and was contributing to it from time to time from Germany. Butterfield reminds me that I said:

“It’s like entrusting a Ming vase to an ape.”

Why did I say this? Partly because I thought Johnson would be slapdash, but mainly because I placed such a high value on The Spectator.

Like his critics when he entered Downing Street, I did not foresee the care with which he would select colleagues able to perform those duties for which he was not himself suited. He was a man with the energy, determination and ability to make a success of things, which for most of his editorship he proceeded to do, even though, from 2001, he adopted the risky course of serving also as Conservative MP for Henley, and was soon seen as the future leader the party might need.

There was no precedent in British politics for riding two horses at the same time in quite this way, and at the end of 2004 he came a spectacular cropper, which ruled him out of contention for the Conservative leadership when it fell vacant the following year.

David Cameron, who became leader in December 2005, conferred on Johnson a junior front-bench post which was incompatible with continuing to edit The Spectator, so down he stepped from that role.

Over a decade elapsed before he was once more in contention for the leadership. Some, including myself, think he was by then older, wiser and more professional, but this is a question which falls outside the scope of Butterfield’s book. Perhaps future historians will look back on Johnson’s editorship as a valuable preparation for his final ascent, perhaps not.

My high idea of The Spectator dated from when I started reading it as a student, in about 1978, during Chancellor’s editorship.

It is often the period just before one’s own which exercises the greatest fascination. Chancellor had taken over in 1975, when the magazine was in danger of collapse, the circulation having fallen to an official figure of 11,000, but probably below that, the patience of many readers exhausted by the paper’s unremitting and unavailing attacks on Britain’s membership of the Common Market.

Butterfield quotes the leader written by William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, in 1978, to mark the magazine’s 150th anniversary:

“The Spectator, having quite recently been a very bad magazine, is at present a very good one. For that Mr Alexander Chancellor, its still new Editor, and Mr Henry Keswick, its still new proprietor, deserve much praise… The Spectator now plays an important part in the most interesting intellectual movement of our times. Just as The New Statesman was the leading intellectual magazine of the movement to collectivism in the 1930s and 1940s, so now The Spectator is the leading intellectual magazine of the movement away from collectivism in the 1970s.” 

Chancellor would not have dreamed of writing about what he was doing in such terms. He was not very political, and had never voted Conservative. He attracted wonderful writers, many of them refugees from The New Statesman, which just then was going through a wilfully dull period, and he induced them to do their best work for him, for how wide his sympathies were and how delightful it was to make him laugh.

But Rees-Mogg was right. The tide had turned and The Spectator picked up or reflected what was happening. It was Patrick Cosgrave, in the magazine’s previous, more ideological phase, who was one of the first people to perceive that the future might belong to Margaret Thatcher.

Chancellor’s contributors included Jeffrey Bernard, Ferdinand Mount, Auberon Waugh, Richard Ingrams, Shiva Naipaul, Alan Watkins, Xan Smiley, Murray Sayle, Christopher Hitchens, Nicholas von Hoffman, Timothy Garton Ash, Sam White, Patrick Marnham, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Richard West, Peter Paterson, Peter Ackroyd, Roy Kerridge, Gavin Stamp, A.N.Wilson, John McEwen, Paul Johnson, Alastair Forbes, Taki Theodoracopulos and Andrew Brown, all of them writing some of the best pieces they ever wrote.

As a reader, you could relax in their company, and felt that they knew what was going on, but were not obsessed by politics or by success, and would laugh at people who deserved to be laughed at.

In Butterfield’s account, we get the young Moore’s reaction to the magazine:

“when I first read Alexander Chancellor’s Spectator when I was at university, it was a bit like ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’: I recognised at once an exhilarating air of freedom. That is the best thing about The Spectator.”

And we also have what Johnson said, in an interview with The Guardian, on becoming editor in 1999, two years into Tony Blair’s New Labour rule:

“In the glutinous consensus of New Britain, The Spectator is a refuge for logic, fun and good writing. It challenges the orthodoxy, whatever that happens to be. It will continue to set the political agenda, and to debunk it.”

There is, Johnson implies, an essential two-facedness about being an editor. One wants to know and influence the thoughts of the mighty, but one also needs to debunk them.

Like a good politician, a good editor conveys, through every twist and turn demanded by changing circumstances, an honesty of purpose, a quality of being true to himself or herself, what is now known as authenticity.

This quality was communicated by Robert Rintoul, born in obscurity in 1787 outside Perth, who learned and practised the trade of journalism in Dundee and Edinburgh, and in the mid-1820s came south to London, where in 1828 he founded The Spectator.

Very soon, Rintoul found himself covering the tumultuous agitation for Reform in the years 1830-32, and though he was no mindless partisan, in March 1831 he coined what Butterfield calls perhaps the most famous slogan in The Spectator‘s history: “The Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill.”

And yet he did not wish to preach:

“a newspaper that should attempt to dictate must soon perish…if it dictates, it dies… Newspapers are but an instrument to express the opinion of their readers on either side of whatever may be in question; and, taken all together, where the Press is free, they constitute the public voice.”

To read Butterfield’s account is to see public opinion becoming an irresistible force in public life. It was in 1828 that Macaulay had observed of the Commons, “The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”

Rintoul, in the words of one who knew him, had a “hatred of shams“. This is an enduring thread in the magazine which he founded, and which he proceeded to edit for 30 years.

The Spectator hasn’t always got things right: when Mussolini came on the scene, it was unduly impressed by him. But it has usually been able to find a readership which shared its hatred of shams.

An admirable feature of this history is that it records the contribution not only of famous figures, like the present Prime Minister, but of forgotten ones, such as Charles Seaton, who worked for The Spectator for 42 years, performing a multiplicity of arduous and generally unsung duties, and died in 1995, still working at the age of 84.